The origins of self-deception run deep. We have to unravel our web of lies if we are ever to find our way back to the people we were put on this earth to be. We all tell ourselves lies; we all have buried the truth from time to time. Our lives become more and more inauthentic. Human beings have a reflex reaction to psychological pain not much different from reaction to physical pain. We withdraw from it. Indeed, we use many “defense mechanisms” to distance us from bitter reality. We repress our emotions, we rationalize our behaviors, we distort the memory of past events. Chief among these mechanisms is denial, in which we unconsciously ignore distressing facts about ourselves or others.
I studied psychology at the University of Scranton. Life interrupted my education after three semesters, and I am returning to school next September to complete my studies. I noticed during some of my earlier college classes that many psych patients were asking for Zoloft or Paxil or Effexor or some other anti-depressant drug almost immediately upon beginning therapy. Some of those patients were searching for a way to cover up or gloss over the trouble they were having in their lives instead of working to get to the bottom of it. The impulse to keep our truth and our pain hidden is among the most common, powerful and toxic elements of human nature.
So how do we get the tapes playing inside us to stop? You know, that pesky rambling in our mind that tries to convince us of how unworthy we are. For example, to find the self-esteem we need in order to live full lives, we have to look back to when and how we were first deprived of it. Today’s symptoms are usually being fueled by earlier chapters in our life’s story that we are unwilling to read. If we do not open them and learn what set the stage for suffering, no medicine will be powerful enough to keep our anxiety or depression away for ever. That is something that’s just not doable. Please note that the function of pain is to tell us there is something we must do. Living a “medicated” life will not yield permanent results. This is true about drugs as well as alcohol.
The examined life is worth living. Ignoring the facts of one’s life, especially the painful ones, only puts the negative patterns unconsciously fed by these issues more in command of one’s future. As Carl Jung wrote, “That which we do not bring to consciousness appears in our life as fate.” You can’t outdistance the past. The truth always wins. Digging deeper for the truth begins like this: You start by identifying what trouble needs healing in your life right now, then you journey back into your life story to see the early conflicts that set the stage for it. Your vision will be clear only if you look directly and deeply into your pain. Never away from it.
This is a big part of why alcoholics and addicts cannot get sober without putting down the drink or the drug. It’s impossible to see clearly. Too much fog. Too many compromised memories. Getting drunk takes away one’s ability to see with any clarity the resulting consequences of alcoholism. Heavy drinking doesn’t only make your face go numb. It dulls your senses, seemingly insulates you from fallout, and compromises your judgment and reaction time.
How this really works is you must identify what you need to address at this moment in order to live a more powerful life. Identify what part of your past you need to look at more closely. Edit out the fiction. Remember, the biggest thing that stands between you and your buried past is fear. It is because of this fear that we tend to live behind shields. Problem is, if we keep trying to dodge the truth, it gets harder and harder to avoid the day when that truth surfaces and slaps you hard in the face. If you keep hiding behind your coping mechanisms, such as alcohol, drugs, gambling, excesive eating, or too much sex, you’re going to get blindsided.
Emotional defenses we use to obscure the truth end up obscuring the miraculous qualities that lie beneath those defenses. Qualities such as God-given courage, compassion, empathy, devotion, trust, and (most importantly) the capacity to love. We build impenetrable walls that keep emotional pain at bay. Common to all these walls is the fact that they cover up the truth. Here’s the kicker! Guess who’s standing behind these walls holding them in place? You are, of course. And the walls get heavier with each passing day. Holding up these walls saps your energy. It steals your focus. As long as you’re holding up these shields, you’re living in fear.
I had to think about what some of these walls might be that I’m holding up? Overeating, especially comfort foods. Overspending, usually so I can Look the Part. Perfectionism or obsessing. Abusing drugs and alcohol. Physical pain. Internet pornography. Of course, these walls always mask my deeper pain. They prevent me from addressing core problems from the past that are actually fueling my need to erect walls all around me. Living the truth starts with simply paying attention to your wall-building strategies more than you have in the past. Ask yourself how often you use them. Then, begin to resist them.
It’s helpful to look back at your coping strategies and write down specific plans you can commit to in order to help you see yourself for the first time. As you might have guessed, you can use certain anti-wall-building strategies. Some of mine are cutting comfort foods by fifty percent, being thankful for the material things I do have (rather than being in a mad dash to buy more stuff), go for a fifteen-minute walk every day alone, continue a plan of abstaining from alcohol and mood-altering drugs, address my concerns of physical pain in my low back and take the medical advice given to me by my doctors.
Here’s something to think about. The fact that you will feel anxious or depressed or irritable while limiting your exposure to these things is a sign that you are detoxing from them. In order to anticipate, identify, and overcome your use of these walled strategies (whether old or new), you will need to keep track of them in a journal or notebook. Please remember, as you work to rid yourself of your walls, they will try to reassert themselves through fear. As you free yourself from the burden of holding up all these walls, the self-defeating half-truths and untruths you have told yourself (or others have told you) about your life will lose their footing in your soul.
Perhaps no fear is more universal (and more denied) than the fear of death. We refuse to feel the pain of being mortal. We act as though we have unlimited time to pursue our dreams or tell those we love exactly how we feel, or make amends to those we’ve hurt, or make peace with those from whom we are estranged. Most of all, we act as though there is no urgency to unravel the mysteries of our own life stories; to live examined lives. We have the chance to identify our real talents, pursue our real goals, experience well-being, and find real love. Just know this: We don’t have forever.
No matter how much we try to shield ourselves from painful events and themes in our lives, or to create fictional histories for ourselves, there’s one important fact to remember: The pain does not go away. Emotional pain is symptomatic of an original, underlying problem. Repressed emotional pain and interpersonal conflicts will color our communications with one another. Unfortunately, we bring to each moment every significant experience and relationship we have ever had. These experiences and relationships grow powerful underground roots and tend to contaminate our attempts to build new relationships. When our own history is not clear to us, we have little capacity to separate the present from the past. An unexamined life leads ultimately to chronic conflict.
We tend to automatically introduce our unresolved guilt, anger, fear, sadness, disappointments, jealousies and doubts into our new relationships. It takes being comfortable with conflict, not being drawn to it or afraid of it, to minimize its role in our lives.
Being willing to confront the truth about your life story, to face your pain and express what you feel about yourself, can not only change your life, but can literally save it. Some people are so determined to run for the hills rather than face their pain. They often resort to a variety of behaviors designed to distract themselves from it. If they don’t, they will literally anesthetize themselves.
Perhaps the most common failed coping strategy to avoid pain is to begin abusing alcohol or drugs. Alcoholics and addicts demonstrate a marked inability or unwillingness to confront the reality of their true life story, and explore its most painful chapters. They are literally choosing to use drugs or alcohol on a frequent, often daily, basis in order to escape the past and not feel. The toll this type of running from pain will take on the individual is simply not predictable.
The attempt to keep your pain buried deep within you will lead you to eventually resurrect it in one form or another. Again and again. Nothing can compete energetically with the demons we have stored away since childhood; we remember them, after all, with a child’s heart and mind. The toxic dynamics we have buried with them will retain some of the magnetic force many years after we dig them up again. Recognizing them as the old, burned-out demons they are is key to resisting them.
We can own our futures instead of being owned by our past. Learning from our pain, from which we’ve tried so hard to run, is indeed a true source of power. All psychological suffering, even when it comes with a label such as “bipolar disorder” or “OCD,” has meaning which is rooted somewhere in our personal history.
The human impulse to avoid painful emotional realities seems to be hard-wired into our nervous system. Running away now becomes a neurological reflex reaction based on suffering we endured in our past. People show the same avoidance of emotional pain. No surprise there. Of course, this deprives us of learning that the world can offer us as adults much more than what it did when we were children.
One reason it takes work to fight against this is that the human brain seems anatomically equipped to bury specific memories of what caused us pain in childhood, while “remembering” and reproducing the techniques we used to avoid it. Our entire being, our brain, our gut, our heart, and our five senses, are all trained by what we have lived through. We screen out certain events and perceptions, and screen in others. What we respond to and how we respond to it depends neurologically on what we have concluded about the world in the past.
There is no excuse for raping a woman, hurting your wife, beating your kids, being cruel to your family pet. The people who are most “together” in life may be the ones in the most denial about where they’ve been in their past. The person who hasn’t been willing to “forget” about what happened may be the one who is most obviously struggling with shifting moods, more prone to anger at others, or who is shunned by others entirely. All the anger, sadness and anxiety you may experience has been inside you all along, kept buried by unconscious psychological stress and hurt that distracts you in present day. Coping mechanisms can be anything from drug or alcohol abuse, troubled or repeated relationships that never tend to go anywhere, compulsive eating, gambling, literally anything that takes your attention away from any bad feelings or disconnect you may be experiencing in your current life.
Of course, this is where I tell you that forgiveness and letting go is possible. It truly doesn’t matter how deep the cut you’ve experienced. Everyone has something in their past they thought would truly crush them. For me, it was ending up in county prison on a one-year-old bench warrant. Perfect! Icing on the cake. I was one week from being homeless when the state police picked me up, getting high every day, and starting to drink Vodka again. Twenty months of sobriety gone in one swallow. No way I’m going to live through this crap again. I was sitting in my cell, eyeing up the bare light bulb, and just about to take it out of the socket, break it, and slit my throat.
Then I called out for the guard. “Hey, C.O!” He came up to the cell door. “I feel like I’m going to kill myself.” He looked at me for what seemed like half-an-hour, then sighed. “Do you realize the amount of paperwork you’re gonna cause me now that you’ve said that?”
“What sort of future is coming up from behind, I don’t really know. But the past, spread out ahead, dominates everything in sight.” (Robert Pirsig, from “Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance.)